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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Dillinger Days

There were many notorious gangsters of the early 1930s, but few of the names are still as recognizable today as that of John Dillinger. During his brief nine-month crime spree, Dillinger’s daring bank robberies were front page stories across the nation. Many readers hit hard by the Depression and subsequent bank foreclosures viewed him as a Robin Hood figure. His ability to escape from prisons and police raids gave him a larger-than-life image, almost movie star status.

So naturally his very public death on July 22, 1934 near an alley outside Chicago’s crowded Biograph theater started a media frenzy. Hundreds of visitors were allowed to file past the slain gangster’s body in a morgue (the above photo is what began rumors that Dillinger was excessively endowed--it's his arm, OK?), while others out in the streets dipped their handkerchiefs in his pool of blood where he had been shot down by FBI agents. Newsreel filmmakers and photographers were in hand to capture the events, and physicians even made a death mask of the corpse.

Even Dillinger’s father was caught up in the frenzy, presenting “Crime Does Not Pay” lectures across the country with a traveling vaudeville troupe.

There was no shameful quiet burial for the desperado--Dillinger was buried in Crown Hill cemetery in his hometown of Indianapolis as thousands observed his 20 car procession. And Crown Hill, to its benefit, realizing that a Dillinger tour is much more interesting than a tour featuring Benjamin Harrison, the three Vice Presidents or the inventor of the Gatling gun (also buried there), has an event scheduled today for twisted history aficionados like myself. Though I won’t be able to get any great souvenirs from the tour—the Dillinger family took the precaution of encasing the coffin in 3 feet of solid reinforced concrete.